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Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland Paperback – December 17, 2007
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“Make[s] a good case for genetics taking its place alongside archaeology and history as a tool for understanding the past.” (Ann Forester - Library Journal)
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Background: Because a person's nuclear DNA is derived from both parents in equal parts, trying to track one's genetic heritage backward is complicated by the doubling of the number of ancestors each generation. Even the most recent arrivals considered in Sykes' study, the Normans, ca. 1066, go back about 1000 years, or 40 generations. This gives us about 2-to-the-40th-power ancestors in that generation. That's a big number, roughly equal 10-to-the-12th-power, or about 100 times the current population of the entire Earth. This apparent conundrum reflects the fact that there must have been a large number of intermarriages among cousins of various degrees in the course of the 40 generations, so that many of the names on our lists of 10-to-the-12th-power ancestors would likely be repeated several times over. The message here is that the genetic heritage of a specific individual (his nuclear DNA) really can't be tracked back far enough to reach any useful conclusions about the population of the Isles in 1066 or earlier. However, all is not lost.
Methodology: To overcome this problem, Sykes uses two genetic markers that are passed on unchanged, except by rare genetic mutation. First, mitochondrial DNA (mDNA) is passed on to all offspring by their mother, unmodified by any contribution from the father.Read more ›
The book is not heavy on technicalities but the necessary background is clearly explained. DNA is the instruction set for a living organism. Most of it gets mixed in sexual procreation, half coming from each parent. This does not happen, however, to two particular kinds: mitochondrial DNA (mDNA) which is copied from mother to children and is passed on only by daughters, and the DNA of the male Y-chromosome which is copied from father to sons. Because these come from only one parent, they remain stable over a great many generations. To cut to the chase, it is possible in principle to use mDNA to trace your matrilineal ancestry - mother, grandmother, great-grandmother - all the way back. Twenty thousand years ago there was just one living woman from whom you inherit your mDNA (maybe her mother was alive too - oh, all right, her granny as well).
By studying and comparing mutations in the mDNA sequence (random unimportant copying errors which, once they occur, are passed on) it is possible to allocate all human beings to a few dozen groups or 'clans'. Within each clan the lines of matrilineal ancestry are inferred to converge to one woman whom the author calls 'clan mother'. For example, most people of west European origin are descended from one or other of seven clan mothers who lived between 10000 and 45000 years ago. Prof. Sykes believes he can determine where as well as when these clan mothers lived: 'Helena' in the south of France, 'Jasmine' in Syria and so on.Read more ›
Reading between the lines, as many readers and critics misunderstood his "seven daughters" as "real" individuals, Sykes may have opted for less creative methods to explain the patriarchal counterparts-- which are far more numerous if less attractively developed here in their genetically distinguishable progeny, it seems from their Y-chromosome variants. Instead you get potted histories and summarized geographies of the early formation of the land and the tribes that entered the various insular regions post-Ice Age. While valuable to a general readership who never heard of Geoffrey of Monmouth or learned where the Grampians sprawl, such data does fill these pages with a lot of material that veers tangentially from his genetic research. It's difficult in a book aimed at non-scholars to combine so much information from so many fields; it reminds me too of Jared Diamond's similarly ambitious, polymathic, and synthesizing efforts that roam widely in rounding up support for the grand scientific thesis that spans millennia. Like Diamond, Sykes arouses scholarly and popular controversy. He too likes a good anecdote, and labors to entertain as well as educate, and shows he can speak to audiences outside the learned seminar.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
While I did enjoy this book the first half was a history of the British Isles as best is known. Interesting, but not what I was expecting. Read morePublished 23 hours ago by Maria
The conclusions about the genetics of the British Isles are fascinating and very new. The author does a great job of walking the line between too much scientific detail and not... Read morePublished 11 days ago by Pasadena Boop
An engaging and readable study of the history of the peoples of Britain and Ireland as discovered through DNA analysis. Age old myths are exposed, others confirmed. Read morePublished 1 month ago by David Meyer
Very informative and readable. I love the way it covers all of the history and mythology of the British Isles and ties this into understanding of the DNA results from modern... Read morePublished 2 months ago by Amazon Customer
Did not really know all the places he discussed since I do not live in England but he adds lots of history which I found very helpful. Read morePublished 2 months ago by Michael Wagner
I loved it, but then I am an avid genealogy searcher and history addict; so it hit all my interests. Read morePublished 3 months ago by Amazon Customer
Interesting work and discussion on the flow of peoples along the Atlantic route from Spain to the Isles.Published 3 months ago by Russ Hustead
It was very good at explaining the genetic foundations of the British Isles, and the author writes well. I just wish it has gotten to the point instead of wandering far afield. Read morePublished 3 months ago by Robert Foster